'Will you sack me?'

Engaging role-play in CPL course shows executive teachers how to deal with prickly situations at school

Dinoo Kelleghan

Peter Johnson plays Luke and gives participants scenarios to ponder in the CPL seminar held recently

Your new teacher, Luke, fell down the steps of the local bowlo in this small country town, drunk, and we don’t want our children to be taught by a man who can’t control himself, a group of parents come in a delegation to tell you.

“Did not!” splutters Luke when you call him in. “I can’t remember that.”

He turns aggressive when told he’s been seen turning up at the club every day straight after school and drinking till closing time.

“Are you going to sack me?” he demands.

How are you, as a school executive, going to manage this situation, asks presenter Peter Johnson.

There seems to be little sympathy for Luke around the room — Mr Johnson (pictured) has done all too well with his role-play of the defensive drunk — and there’s a lesson in this.

“You see what presents itself but you need to go beyond that,” Mr Johnson tells the course participants. “You’ve only heard part of the story. Often, there’s more to it.

“You look at the ‘why’ — think of why kids act up.

“How’s Luke going in the town? How’s he settling in? He could feel lonely and isolated.”

Use the Department’s Employee Performance and Conduct (EPAC) directorate if you need to, Mr Johnson says.

“Is it a disciplinary issue?

“Or is it a disciplinary issue because you missed something else?

“And don’t look at the aspect of the problem that is easiest to fix because you might not resolve the whole problem.”

American learning and development expert Bruno Neal emphasises that, “Responding with empathy and intelligence to other people’s situations, with their implied or stated emotions, has to be one of the most important skills any person can have.”

Sometimes, the textbooks tell you, the obvious things are the hardest to remember when you feel you have to jump into a situation: get the facts; ask lots of questions and then listen intensely without prejudging — that’s what the law calls natural justice.

Above all, says Mr Johnson, with all the experience of having been schoolteacher, principal and the Department of Education’s top HR official, don’t jump in.

Stand back, take a deep breath and muster the resources you need to resolve the problem.

Use official documents to guide you to the best course of action and solution. The Department has a Code of Conduct to which teachers must subscribe, and it is a robust framework for managing professional issues.

Departmental employees must adhere to the government-wide Dignity and Respect in the Workplace Charter, which you can use to gauge whether school staff have acted with fairness, respect, integrity and responsibility.

Teachers work within a regulatory framework so there are other instruments to guide your decision, such as the Education Act, Teaching Service Act, Teacher Accreditation Act, Children and Young Persons (Care and Protection) Act, Crown Employees (Teachers in Schools and Related Employees) Salaries and Conditions Act, Agreement between the NSW Department of Education and the NSW Teachers Federation on the staffing of NSW Public Schools 2016-2020 and the Registration process for the NSW Government Schooling System. It will help greatly to become acquainted with at least a few of these documents.

Mr Johnson warns against creating a “solution” that goes beyond your limits of authority. Once, a principal decided she needed to spread her admin load and created a new type of executive position to encourage teachers to volunteer for the work. The trouble was, this was not a valid position so the solution collapsed, leaving everyone unhappy.

Mr Johnson kept throwing up scenarios for participants to think about. A loud “Oooh” sounded when he related one about a parent who thought his daughter was a gifted student and wasn’t being taught properly. Parent interventions appear to be the single biggest source of concern for executive teachers (other problems were teacher morale drooping because of work pressures, teachers not being able to meet deadlines and teachers compounding a problem by being inflexible).

One participant said there was so much classroom disruption by parents at her school that a rule was made that parents must go to the school office. “At my school, whatever we do, it seems that parents are never happy,” a head teacher said.

Sometimes there’s nothing a teacher can do at the time, Mr Johnson said. There’s too much heat in the moment so it’s the worst time to try and talk sense. Try to disarm the person: grab some time; set up a meeting time to talk about the issues and have someone along as a witness. Be prepared: get the student’s classwork and documentation showing how it compares with other students’ work.

Another scenario showed the necessity of looking at all sides of the problem, not letting it escalate, and reviewing a number of available tools: a principal had hired her husband as a temporary teacher and this man was refusing to follow the instructions of the head teacher. Consider the following:

  • think of what documents are relevant to resolving this, Mr Johnson said: for example, the conflict of interest provisions in the Code of Conduct include nepotism
  • EPAC could be contacted as disciplinarian — but as Mr Johnson said, amid laughter, “What’s the sleeper in this? Who’s got to contact EPAC? It’s the principal!”.
  • the principal could ask another principal or the Director to intervene
  • it might not be a case of nepotism but that, say, in a small town, there was no other person available to teach the required subject.

Mr Johnson took participants through mediation and negotiation processes that could be used to resolve conflict. Matters can snowball fast and what might seem trivial at first could end up in court, drawing in many authorities.

Record-keeping was essential, Mr Johnson said. Be meticulous and accurate and be prepared to stand by what you have recorded if an issue escalates to a formal forum such as a court. Keep relevant documents; take and keep minutes; if you’re making an electronic recording obtain signed consent from all present; diaries work to jog your memory but they can be dangerous if not accurate.

“The aim of this course,” Mr Johnson said in conclusion to participants, “is to expose you to the sorts of decisions that confront you in school and all the options you should look at. Take good advice, keep good records, and things will be better — perhaps not ideal but definitely better.”

*Members who wish to seek advice on managing difficult situations can contact Federation’s Professional Support section on 1300 654 367 or email here.

Go the CPL website to choose from CPL courses on offer

— Dinoo Kelleghan

Click here to download a PDF.

Course details

COURSE: Managing Difficult Situations in Schools

PRESENTER: Peter Johnson

Peter Johnson, a former teacher, principal, director and executive director at the Department of Education, was awarded a Public Service Medal in 2015 for outstanding service to education in NSW